A Pivotal Visit At A Critical Time


Germany currently holds both the presidency of the European Union and G-8. Thus, its input to the international policy debates, which are dominating global headlines, are of high value. Given its balanced approach to international relations, Germany is increasingly being sought as an important partner to solve key challenges confronting the world. Since many of these concerns are in the Middle East, her trip assumes greater significance.
Since December 2006, Chancellor Merkel has held talks with Egyptian President Mubarak, Israeli Prime Minister Olmert, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Jordan’s King Abdullah. On her return from a recent visit to the region, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stopped in Berlin for talks with the German government. Foreign Minister Steinmeier has visited the region no less than five times since the war in Lebanon last year. All this indicates increased German political engagement in the Middle East as part of a growing awareness that such involvement is part and parcel of a broader European security strategy. Demonstrating that results can be achieved, the Middle East Quartet met for the first time in four years in Washington on February 2. 
Of course, Germany continues to have strong economic interests in the region. With the GCC States offering tremendous potential for business and investment, Germany’s volume of trade with the region has topped the 13 billion euro mark, doubling since 2000. Like in the past, the chancellor will be accompanied by a strong economic delegation headed by Economics Minister Michael Glos. At the same time, Germany’s broader commitment on the ground in the greater Middle East has steadily grown in recent years and represents the main factor for the current political engagement. In Afghanistan, 2,900 German troops are part of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) since 2003. Germany heads two ISAF Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Kunduz and Feyzabad and provides the Regional Commander (North), based in Mazar-e-Sharif. On January 30, 2007, Germany also hosted the Joint Coordination and Monitoring Board meeting for Afghan reconstruction in Berlin.
As part of UN Security Council Resolution 1701, German naval units deployed off the Lebanese coast and took command from Maritime Task Force from Italy in October 2006 to help secure the Lebanese coast line. In total, 2,400 naval personnel were committed. Furthermore, during the Lebanese reconstruction conference held in Paris on January 25, Germany raised its pledge for 2006 and 2007 by 30 million euro, totaling 103 million euro as part of the overall EU commitment of 500 million euro.
Overall, Germany’s engagement has to be welcomed, in particular because this also includes the greater involvement of the European Union. In the past few years, there has been increasing recognition that events in the Gulf — from Iraq and its broader implications, to Iran and its dangerous nuclear program, to terrorism and the need to find a common front, and to energy security where the Gulf plays the pivotal role — are having an impact beyond the region proper. This includes the unresolved political crisis in Lebanon and the recognition that the fostering Arab-Israeli conflict continues to inflame tensions far beyond the Palestinian territories. In all these instances, the realization has taken hold that the Gulf is the main geopolitical arena for the coming decade. And, Germany, as a main European power, cannot avoid this reality.
In light of the above factors, the chancellor’s visit contains a second important variable too. The Gulf currently finds itself in a desperate situation where the volatile security environment could implode any moment. This, in particular, includes the possibility of another conflict situation between the US and Iran at a time when Iraq shows no signs of calming down. Unless immediate action is taken, the overall environment will lead to a further increase in intolerance and extremism. The challenges that the Gulf confronts cannot be solved through military means; they require political solutions. In this situation, Germany and the European Union are not only an accepted partner, but a wanted and needed one. 
What can Germany and the EU concretely provide the region? There are three distinct suggestions. First, improve its public diplomacy in the region where people remain far too uninformed about what the EU’s policies and intentions. As far as the GCC States are concerned, Germany brings to the table exactly what the Gulf requires amid its present volatility: an emphasis on multilateralism through the EU and NATO, a focus on long-term stability, and an ability to maintain open lines of communications with all the regional actors — be it GCC States, Iraq, Iran or Yemen. Germany and the EU are capable of promoting dialogue, bridging communication gaps and encouraging confidence building, all absolutely essential elements for the foundation of a stable Gulf security architecture in the near future. Germany and the GCC States also agree on the broad outlines of the major regional and international issues — from Afghanistan to Iraq to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Germany and the EU can further promote a greater degree of convergence and cooperation between the GCC and the EU as institutions. But all this needs to be communicated to the public at large, create momentum that translates into effective action.
Second, the EU needs to act as a conduit to key actors in the region. The first is the United States, whose policies are proving catastrophic for the Gulf’s short-, medium- and long-term stability. By injecting its voice into the policy debate, Europe can offer a moderating complement to US policy that will limit the more extreme tendencies of unilateralism. It has to finally be understood that without a competent voice of its own, Germany — with Europe alongside — will ultimately be left to deal with the consequences of a failed American policy.
The same can be said with regard to Iran, which also needs to comprehend the dangerous direction its policies are paving for the region. Iran should stop living under the illusion that the US failed US strategy in Iraq automatically opens the door for Tehran to uninhibitedly spread its hegemony throughout the region. It does not. Europe should increase the pressure on Iran to come to the negotiating table on its nuclear policy by re-emphasizing that the June 2006 EU-3 proposal remains firmly on the table. There are still plenty of options to avoid a military scenario. In this context, Germany and the EU can offer what nobody else has been able to so far  a long-term strategic vision around which all sides could orient themselves. 
Third, the EU should openly support regional GCC initiatives that could impact positively on the broader region. This includes the Saudi-inspired Counter-Terrorism Center to be established in Manama; the proposal for a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone for the Gulf as a precursor for a broader Middle East Zone; and the full support for the Peace Plan proposed by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict as put forward in 2002 and accepted by the Arab summit in Beirut. The bottom line is that this is a unique opportunity for Germany to promote an European alternative and to develop a common European policy that will help the region begin the process of overcoming the long-standing practice of mutual antagonisms. Chancellor Merkel’s visit could prove pivotal in this regard.

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